Woss school faces closure — again

For the second time in two years, declining enrolment has put Woss Lake Elementary School on School District 85’s chopping block.

PORT McNEILL—For the second time in two years, declining enrolment has put Woss Lake Elementary School on School District 85’s chopping block.

In a 5-2 vote, trustees approved first reading of a bylaw that could result in the closure of the remote logging hamlet’s school, which currently has just four students, effective June 30.

“The first reading does not mean that the school will close,” board chair Leighton Wishart said during the regular January meeting, held at North Island Secondary School. “It just opens the process for us to discuss the possibility of closing the school.”

It is not the first such discussion. Woss Lake Elementary was one of three schools — along with Robert Scott Elementary in Port Hardy and Cheslakees Elementary in Port McNeill — listed in a closure bylaw examined by the board in February of 2010 as it faced an anticipated $1 million budget shortfall.

Woss Lake and Cheslakees survived the cut that year, though in 2011 Cheslakees was converted to a kindergarten and early learning centre as its grade 1 through 5 students were rolled into nearby Sunset Elementary.

As soon as first reading of the current bylaw was approved, Woss Lake Elementary received a reprieve, when second and third readings were pushed back to late March or April.

The Ministry of Education funding formula provides a larger per-pupil amount for the more remote schools in the province. When asked how much SD85 would save by closing Woss Elementary — or, conversely, how much it would cost to keep it open — secretary-treasurer John Martin said he could not yet answer, because the ministry will not release its funding figures for next school year until March 15.

“I’m looking here (at the bylaw) and seeing a third reading in our meeting Mar. 12,” trustee Jeff Field said. “It doesn’t make sense to make a decision on the 12th when you’re waiting for important budget information on the 15th.”

Martin agreed, and trustees approved striking the dates for second and third reading before voting on the first reading.

In addition to giving the board time to gather funding information, the reprieve will allow the district more time to research how many students are actually expected to attend the school should it remain open for the 2012-13 school year.

“As we know from previous experience, lots can change in the lives of parents and students from month to month,” said Martin. “I’m sure the (Woss) community will be trying to advocate for the school and trying to promote the school staying open.”

The bylaw will, however need to be decided by the end of April, as 60 days notice are required to the Ministry of Education before the scheduled June 30 closing date.

“I really hate this process,” said Wishart. “This is the third or fourth time I’ve been through this, and it’s the worst possible job a school trustee can go through because you’re affecting people’s lives.

“In a situation like this, you’re also affecting a community and its ability to draw in young families into the community.”